One might have thought that translating the story of the creation of the world would lead one to speculative questions that one should not ask, such as what is above the heavens and what is below. Today we might say that reading Genesis leads to potentially difficult scientific questions. Nevertheless, the rabbis still rule that is read and translated.
The story of Tamar and Judah is found in Genesis 38. It is read and translated, even though one might have thought that it is not respectful to Judah, who after all, lies with his daughter-in-law. It is read and translated because ultimately, the fact that he admits to his sin means the entire story is to his credit.
We might have thought that we don’t read and translate the first story of the making of the calf because it is disgraceful to Israel, reminding us of our worst transgression. The mishnah teaches that we do read it because in the end we did receive atonement.
Later we shall discuss the second story of the making of the calf.
The curses and blessings found at the end of Leviticus and Deuteronomy are read and translated, even though they might cause the people to become disheartened. Hearing bad prophesies about your future is frightening, but ultimately the point of these verses is to serve as a warning to repent. As such, it is important that they be understood.
The warnings not to transgress the commandments and the penalties for having transgressed them are read and translated. We are not afraid that by reading them we will cause people to perform mitzvot only out of fear.
The story of Amnon and Tamar is one of the ugliest stories in the Tanakh. Amnon desires Tamar, his half-sister, and when she refuses to lay with him immediately, he rapes her, and then is revolted by her. Later, as revenge, Avshalom kills Amnon, setting off a rebellion, which leads to Avshalom’s death as well. It’s ugly. And it doesn’t say good things about David and his dysfunctional family. But we read it and translate it anyway.
The story of the concubine of Gibeah (Judges 19-20) is one of the most brutal ugly stories in the Tanakh. A man visits the town of Gibeah with his concubine in tow. The depraved men of the town brutally rape her. She eventually makes her way home to her husband, but then dies upon arrival. He cuts her up into pieces and sends a piece to each tribe of Israel, calling for war against the town of Gibeah and the Benjamites. This sets off a civil war.
We might have thought that we don’t read this passage because it is a disgrace to Benjamin.
Today’s section continues to discuss which parts of the Torah are read and translated and which are not.
Ezekiel 16 is a harsh and almost pornographic, metaphorical description of Israel’s playing the whore with the gods of other nations. It is understandable why we might have thought that it is not read. The Talmud relates a story of a person who read the passage in front of R. Elazar. R. Elazar seems to have strongly objected to the reading, telling the man to go look up his own lineage before he disparages Jerusalem by reading this chapter. In the end, they do go look up the lineage of this man and find that one of his ancestors was indeed illegitimate.
The mishnah basically disagrees with R. Elazar and holds that despite its harsh descriptions, this passage is read.
In Genesis 35 Reuben sleeps with Jacob’s concubines. Again, not a pretty story (and one they didn’t really cover in Hebrew school). This story is read, but not translated, for it truly is dishonorable. In the story that follows the translator translates only the second half of the verse, “And Jacob had twelve sons.” This is the kosher part of the verse, and can be translated.
The “second account of the calf” is Exodus 32:21-24. The problematic verse is verse 24, where Aaron says he just cast the gold into the fire and the calf came forth on its own. This gave evidence to the heretics who believed that there were many gods. The golden calf was indeed a true god and it created itself. This they could have learned from Aaron himself.
The first line of the priestly blessing is “May God show favor to you” (this word can be translated in other ways, such as “May God lift you up.”) This is somewhat controversial—a judge is not supposed to favor one of his constituents. Therefore, the word is not translated.
Above the Talmud said that the story of David and Amnon (David’s son who raped Tamar, David’s daughter and then was killed by Avshalom, another of David’s sons) is read and translated. Yet here the Talmud seems to say that this story is read but not translated. The Talmud resolves this by saying that when Amnon is mentioned without his father’s name, it is read and translated. Such cases do not impinge upon David’s honor. But if David’s name is mentioned, the verse is not translated so as to spare poor David the ignominy.
The last section of this page and chapter discusses the use of euphemisms in reading the Bible.
There are a few places in the Bible where euphemisms have been introduced into the text. The word “yishagelnah” is a coarse way of saying “have sex.” It is replaced with “lie with her.” “Ba’afolim” is a coarse word for hemorrhoids. “Hiryonim” means dung, but “divyonim” is a word for something that comes from doves. In II Kings 18:27 more delicate words for feces and urine are used. “Lemoza’ot” is a gentler word for latrines.
Joshua b. Korha says that we read the actual word “lamahara’ot” because it is in description of idolatry and we can use coarse words when referring to idolatry.
There are “bathroom” jokes hidden in each of these verses, at least according to Rashi’s understanding. Both refer to a “burden” (the second only by changing the vocalization). According to Rashi the “burden” referred to is the burden of carrying the excrement of the idolatrous calves. This is a way of mocking idolatry—they mourn over the loss of the calf whose excrement they joyfully carried.
“Shin tof” is a reference to the word “shet” in Isaiah 20:4. It means, “bared buttocks.” Basically a Jew can tell an idolater to take his idol and put it where the sun don’t shine.
Ashi uses a different acronym “gimmel shin.” Rashi translates this as “son of a prostitute” which remains a curse in modern Hebrew. One is allowed to use a disgraceful term in reference to a person who has “bad reports” about them, meaning there is substantial reason to suspect that the person has been guilty of bad behavior. The chapter does not end with this ill remark. Rather, it notes the opposite—just as one is allowed to say something bad about a person of ill-report, so too a person is allowed, and is even rewarded for saying something good about a person of good report.
Congrats, you’ve finished another chapter. Only one more to go, and we’ll have finished the tractate!